Friday, January 29, 2010

Deep Thoughts on "from scratch"

I was recently asked why I didn't make a specific ingredient from scratch. As usual I over-thought the question and this is what I came up with:

In creating and maintaining grill-a-chef, the goal is to encourage and help people to cook. So I vowed to advise without bias or agenda, directing the inquirer towards what is "best" for his or her specific situation.
That is where the art of fielding a cooking question lies; determining the underlying dilemma. The question: "How do I make good scrambled eggs?" will mean something different coming from everyone. One person might have all the right tools and some experience, but wants to refine the process, while another has literally never made scrambled eggs. Obviously, they receive different answers.

When dishing out "how-to" I also try to keep it simple and focus primarily on quality, while building an appreciation for the process of cooking. This appreciation is what keeps people coming back to cooking and it is the process that sets a person's threshold for effort to reward ratios. In other words, is cooking worth their time? So my advice also has to bear this in mind. For example, if my advice includes the use of chicken stock, does it come from a box? a cube? or do you make it yourself? Well it depends on the asker.

I certainly have never set out to only use items I make from scratch, though as a cook I'm always questioning where I draw this line for myself and why. Somehow the thought process keeps bringing me back to the same benchmark ingredient: Ketchup. I have had many versions of ketchup and made a few myself,but ketchup has such a connotation that is hard to overcome. Heinz ketchup to be specific, it's how I grew to love ketchup and will always be the standard, no matter who recreates it.
Ketchup is my baseline, my effort/reward limit, not to mention that making it works out to be considerably more expensive. Ketchup is something I think I've unconsciously resolved to never make again.
While I'm an advocate of making something from scratch a few times to understand the process and ingredients, I can't condone continuing to make it only on principle.

Moving up the ladder you have a lot of ingredients that fall in a gray area, stuff you can relatively easily (and sometimes cheaply) make yourself but it doesn't always make sense. Things like mayonnaise, pickles, chutneys, breads, curry pastes and so on and so forth. These things for me boil down to circumstances and personal preference.

You might not always have time or space to make them, but maybe when the opportunity and ingredients arise, you do. You have to be the judge of that, and decide what is "best" for you.
As I'm sure the answer is different for everyone.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dynamic Duo

Curry paste and coconut milk. They may not be on the pantry forefront, but if you dig deep enough you’ll always find them at my house. I’m a fan of the maesri brand, they have a wide variety of curry pastes, available for under a dollar a can. And there are no funky unnatural ingredients such as colors, sugars or msg.***

Together they make a foundation on which you can lay just about any combination of vegetables and protein . . . even fruit. When I find myself with an awkward mix of vegetation in my fridge, It almost always becomes a curry.

I just sauté some onion ad garlic (and ginger if it’s around) add a tablespoon of the curry paste, toast the whole mix just a bit and add the coconut milk, and then simmer the protein (meat/fish/seafood/tofu) and voila!

You have a great meal.

***Upon further investigation. The sour curry pictured above actually has some msg. I picked it up to try a new flavor and haven't yet cracked it open. None of the other flavors I've come across contain msg.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A super simple meal worth noting

Last spring I was fortunate enough to find myself in Portugal. It was a great place, with nice people and incredible food. It all served as a reminder of the value of freshness. Meat, cheese, bread and beer usually comes from within miles of where it is consumed. "local" is not a label you search for, it is presumed.
The simplest things made in the simplest ways can make a huge impression if their quality is outstanding, and that's what Portuguese food relies on, especially when it comes to seafood. . I've eaten at Portuguese spots in the States that never really come through, the preparations are just too simple. It's as if the original cook were saying "Listen, this dish won't work unless you're eating it in front of the water where it was caught."

Shrimp from the Algarve Sea. . . enjoyed at the Algarve Sea. They're simply sauteed garlic and butter, along with fried fish, cold beer and yes . . . potatoes. I know this looks staged, but it's real. I acknowledge it may be circumstantial, but this was one of the most memorable meals of my life.

Today at the fish market, the sardines were screaming out at me for some reason, they looked really fresh, so I decided to take the leap, and maybe recreate a simple meal I remember from the streets of Lisbon: Grilled sardines with fried potato "scraps". (pictured here {in the back} with clams Alentejo, grilled dorade and octopus salad)

I had the fish place scale the sardines, which just means spraying them with a high pressure hose against the grain of the scales (tail to head). If you had to do it yourself you can simply rub them up and rinse them off. I don't clean them until they're cooked.
To cook I simply pat them very dry, brush them with oil, and season well with salt. They go directly into a hot grill pan for 3-4 minutes on each side . . . and that's it, they're done.

The potatoes are a little trickier, by Portuguese standards anyways. I imagine the shape originates from cooking potato peels made with a knife, and now we just peel the whole thing. The shape gives a unique combination of crispy edges with soft center. You make it by using a pairing knife to shave off tidbits of potato, rotating it until you get to the center.

Once you have all of your scraps, I used the "french fry" technique of par-frying them at 325 degrees for 2-3 minutes and then cranking up the oil and crisping them up at around 375-400 degrees for a minute or two.

The view of the final product from across a sea of fresh homemade garlic aioli. We ate it all.

The whole shebang, served with a squeeze of lemon and an arugula salad. While it didn't quite live up to my meals on the sea in Portugal. It will certainly happen again when I find the right sardines for the job.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Staples: Garlic Powder

One of the most underrated ingredients in my opinion, garlic powder is always within reach.
When used properly, it can lend a great garlic flavor. The trick is you HAVE to give it time reconstitute.
Garlic powder is garlic that is dehydrated and then ground up. So like tiny dried mushrooms, the granules need a little time to soak up moisture so that they can really shine. Meaning you can't really put it on something directly before consumption, though I admit to doing so occasionally with a slice of pizza.
It's perfect for spice rubs and marinades; garlic powder is more durable than fresh garlic, making it more suitable high heat applications like grilling. There's nothing worse than the underlying flavor of burnt garlic in an otherwise delicious marinade.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Staples: Onions & Garlic

As simple as it may sound, I always always always have some form of onions and garlic around. Almost every cuisine around the world starts with out over these delicious bulbs.
They're easy to grow, tasty, simple and they store well for long periods of time.
Keep them in a cool, dry, and dark place. I put mine in a wooden bowl under the kitchen sink. The wood actually regulates the moisture a little, preventing mold from forming on the undersides. The darkness is key because light can trigger sprouting in the center, which in turn saps nutrition and flavor from the bulb. If garlic or onions do sprout, remove it before consumption, the sprout itself can have an incredibly strong onion flavor.

Monday, January 11, 2010

I love Meyer Lemons, do you have any interesting ideas of what to do with them?

This time of year we don’t have a lot to choose from in the way of stellar ingredients, especially if we restrict ourselves to local farmers' markets. But there are a few notable things peaking now that come to us from a ways away.

Among them . . . the Meyer Lemon. A mysterious citrus that seemed to spring up out of no where about ten years ago. It was introduced to the western world shortly after WWII, but no one seemed to appreciate it for 45 years.

But the fact of the matter is this breed of citron, a cross between a mandarin orange and a lemon, was holed up within the walls of a Chinese emperor’s palace for decades. Enjoyed only by him and his constituents.
Fortunately for us, the cat is out of the bag.
I love the Meyer Lemon. It’s somehow mild and less harsh than a conventional lemon, with more sweetness. It makes for great dressings, and produces an incredible custard

Every couple of years I preserve a few . . . for safe keeping.
They later find their way into a wide array of dishes through out the year.

By the way, normal lemons will work fine for this recipe.

Preserved Meyer Lemons

10-12 Meyer Lemons
8 Lemons, Juiced
A fresh bay leaf for every lemon

1. Cutting close to the base, but not severing it; score each lemon through the middle.
2. Salt liberally inside and out, insert a bay leaf in the incision of each lemon.
3. Applying decent pressure, pack the lemons into a sealable glass container.
4. Cover them completely with the lemon juice and stow away in the fridge. They won’t be ready for at least a month.

*** Sometimes a white film will form on the surface of the liquid, just skim it off, it's completely normal.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Pantry Staples

I get a lot of inquiries on the staples of my kitchen. So I put some thought into it and I'm slowing going through my pantry assessing the importance of each thing. There are things I use very often, and then every so often. There are also things I'm shocked to not find in others' pantries.
My wheels are turning.
Stay tuned for series on the little bits and pieces that compose my regular pantry.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

When putting food that was just cooked in the freezer or refrigerator, does it need to be cooled first?

It does help to cool it before going in the fridge, but it's more about ambient heat than the food that is cooling. If you put a hot food in the fridge next to say, a carton of milk or a package of chicken, the ambient heat warms it. This can cause things to go bad, and potentially make you sick, so be weary of placing hot things in the fridge.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

I can never quite recreate that great spice flavor I get in Indian and middle eastern restaurants, what’s their secret?

In addition to knowing what they’re doing, I’m going to guess that great spices are what really set their food apart.

I can’t tell you how often I find elderly spices hidden away in cabinets, as if at the ready for some unforeseen spice emergency. One host even boasted, “This is my Grandma’s cumin!”
Unfortunately spices are not something that get better with age. The things that make spices so good are volatile compounds that dissipate over time, and once ground you have two to three weeks max. Hardcore spice enthusiasts will generously give them a day before they hit the trash. This means that most ground goods on the shelf are already past their prime.

Grind your spices once and I guarantee you won’t bother with pre-ground ever again. The difference in flavor is astounding, that’s the main thing, but the benefits don’t stop there. If you can find a decent store where you can buy in bulk, then you’ll have the system beat. You can get them in smaller amounts, usually for cheaper, and toast and grind them in little amounts as needed.

Be sure to keep your whole spices in a temperate, dry, and dark place, ideally in opaque airtight containers. Light, heat, and air will sap the yumminess away and moisture can make them rot. For this reason I’m not a fan of spice racks or lazy susan’s that sit out on countertops. Spices should be stowed away in cabinet, far way from your stovetop and oven NOT in a spice rack over it.

For use, start by toasting your spice(s) in a heavy bottomed skillet. I prefer a cast iron skillet for this. Heat the skillet over medium heat and drop in your whole spices, keeping them moving until you see a light smoke. The smell should be potent and amazing. Transfer them to a plate to cool.
You can grind them in a coffee grinder, which I do from time to time, but since I only have one, I end up hating my coffee for a week. I don't have space or funds for separate grinder. This bamboo Mortar & Pestle cost me ten dollars, and it gets the job done just fine. The secret is not crushing down, but using a stirring motion to grind.

I usually leave spices in a rustic grind, but if you'd like a finer powder you can pass it through a small sieve.

Spice Crusted Shrimp

2 Lbs Shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 tbsps Vegetable oil
1/2 tsp Cumin
1/2 tsp Caraway
1/2 tsp Coriander
1/2 tsp Mustard Seed
1/4 tsp Black peppercorns
6 Cardamom pods
1/4 tsp Turmeric Powder
1/2 tsp Garlic Powder

1. Toast and grind the cumin, caraway, coriander,mustard seed, peppercorns and cardamom.
2. Add the turmeric and garlic powder.
3. In a separate bowl, sprinkle the spice mix over the shrimp while tossing; add the oil and mix well. Stick them in the fridge for at least 2 hours and up to 24.

4. Heat a heavy bottomed skillet (I prefer cast iron) over medium high heat untill very hot and, working in batches "grill" the shrimp for around a minute and a half on each side.

For better searing, don't crowd the pan.

*to check for doneness, I'll nip off the head end to see the center. It should be just opaque, if not put a lid on the skillet to trap the moisture, it will cook the shrimp through in a snap.

*** Special thanks to Ryan, Kathy & Carla.
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